Sexual Harassment on Public Transportation. Egyptian Women Recount their Experiences
By: Suhad Al-Khudari
Public transportation, such as the subway and microbus, is the most widely used in Egypt and the means on which women are most vulnerable to sexual harassment.
Many women are afraid to go to workplaces or educational institutions, lest they be subjected to sexual harassment in its various forms.
According to a Reuters poll of 19 countries, Egypt ranked first for harassment rates in the region. Cairo ranked as the third most dangerous city in terms of sexual violence. A recent study conducted by the Tadween Center for Gender Studies entitled “Sexual Violence in Egypt” revealed that transportation is one of the most common places where women are sexually harassed by 96%.
After calls from feminist organizations in Egypt to amend the sexual harassment law, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi issued amendments to the penal code in 2021 to increase the penalty for sexual harassment, but these amendments did not reduce the crime rate.
Warning: Content may trigger painful feelings related to experiences of sexual violence.
Harassment on public transport is a frequent occurrence
Shaima Ahmed (pseudonym), 27, pharmacist.
“I was taking a microbus from Imbaba in Giza to my work in the pharmacy. I found that the back seat was the only one vacant in the microbus. Then, a man in his fifties sat next to me. Shockingly, this guy opened his phone on an adult movie site and placed it before my eyes.
This situation was enough to make me cry for several days because of the severity of its impact on me, which prompted me to stay at home. I was afraid of the recurrence of this incident, and I feared my repeated self-reproach for not exposing the harasser to people.”
The situation wasn’t a transient incident for Shaimaa, who now fears taking public transportation or sitting next to any man. Shaimaa’s story is not a one-off, as women are often exposed to similar situations. Many girls have reported to the Egyptian security authorities that men have unzipped their pants and shown their sexual organs inside the metro or microbuses.
The Egyptian public has not forgotten the incident of the female student in Sharqia Governorate, who accused a doctor of committing an “obscene act” inside a microbus in November (2020). This is the legal terminology to describe these incidents in the Egyptian Penal Code. The doctor masturbated and ejaculated on her clothes. Then he denied it, claiming that he had forgotten to zip up his pants while he was sleeping from exhaustion at work.
“Sometimes a victim/survivor is attacked if they object to the crime. We find a lot of sympathizers with the perpetrators.”
Siham Mohammad (pseudonym), 28, journalist
“About six years ago, I was riding in a microbus on my way to work as a journalist in Daqhalia. Suddenly, I felt an abnormal movement in the back seat, while a hand tried to grab my clothes. I looked to see what was happening. A man stuck his sexual organ to the seat and looked at me suspiciously while moving it as if he was in the midst of a sexual act.
I couldn’t help but shout, “What are you doing, you dirty pig? After I exposed him before the passengers, he accused me of being crazy and falsely slandering him. But the passengers supported me, yelled at him, and removed him from the car. I could not erase this terrifying and disgusting incident from my memory despite the many years. I make sure now in every means of transportation to place my bag between me and any man or reserve two seats. I also choose to sit in separate, non-double seats, so that I don’t get in a similar situation again.”
Asma Ahmed (pseudonym), 30 years old
“Fear took over me when I found him trying to touch me from behind while I was riding a microbus in Cairo. That’s when I saw this young man, and I moved to another seat. So he started blowing in my face and slapping the microbus window. I was afraid it would escalate into a physical assault on me, and I went down quickly.
I wished my reaction was stronger. Unfortunately, years have passed since the incident, and I still haven’t forgotten it. I still fear men. I wish that some microbuses would be reserved for women only, as in metro cars.”
Sexual harassment awareness campaigns
In 2016, Hadia Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian feminist activist, launched the initiative: “We shall not tolerate harassment.” The campaign aimed to support women and girls confronting sexual violence amid the absence of legal and social protection mechanisms. It was also keen to raise awareness of the dangers of sexual harassment, as it organized “running and cycling marathons and football matches”.
Hadia Abdel Fattah said to Sharika Wa Laken, “I didn’t just involve women, I also engaged men. This is to learn about the negative impact of sexual violence on women and society as a whole.”
This type of crime has cultural and social dimensions. So, we need to change the culture of men abusing women’s bodies.
She continued: “I took the initiative to organize an event under the title: ‘The dress of old times when the street was safe’, to prove to the community that sexual harassment is not about women’s clothing. I also organized several workshops and screened Iranian and Tunisian films that dealt with actual stories of victims/survivors of sexual violence. Writers and artists participated with us in the screenings to discuss the films and laws of sexual harassment and to talk about its risks.”
In addition to organizing “awareness workshops and seminars in various places,” noting “the increase in harassment crimes on public transportation due to the lack of enforcement of laws.”
“Sometimes a victim/survivor is attacked if they object to the crime. While we find many who would sympathize with the perpetrators.” She proceeded.
For her part, Dr. Samia Khodhr Saleh, a professor of sociology at Ain Shams University, said in her interview with “Sharika Wa Laken,” that “classism, despite its well-known problems, has played a relative role in scaring away harassers for fear of the reaction of the rich women and their families.”
She also criticized “the role of the media and drama that forms a considerable part of the public culture and tolerating violence against women.”
Expropriation of women’s bodies
Mona Ezzat, executive director of the Noon Foundation for Family Welfare, said that sexual harassment of women in transportation in Egypt “is nothing but the result of complicity in society. Especially when men abuse women’s bodies, there is no deterrent social attitude towards harassment.”
She attributed this to “the patriarchal culture we were raised in, where society holds women responsible for their exposure to any form of violence.”
“Harassment is not limited to transportation, but occurs in different places such as work, the street, and the home,” Mona Ezzat added.
She went on to tell Sharika Wa Laken: “Unfortunately years ago, we didn’t have the means to uncover the violence against women. In addition to the fear or reluctance of victims/survivors to speak out, for fear of blame or getting into more trouble, despite the existence of a law that can support them.” “The situation has changed somewhat over the last 20 years. Feminist talk about violence against women in the means of transportation or the street began to spread, leading to the amendment of legislation and mechanisms to deal with these attacks.”
Mona Ezzat saw that: “We need policies and legislations to provide safety within the means of transportation during the coming period. She suggested working to promote private vehicles for women in other means of transport, similar to the subway. In addition, there should be continuous policing on these vehicles.”
She stressed the need for society to change the “culture of victim blame”, along with “amendments incorporated into the provisions of the Penal Code to criminalize sexual harassment. Especially since this type of crime has cultural and social dimensions. So, we need to change the culture of men abusing women’s bodies.”
She also appealed for “launching awareness, media and educational campaigns to change this prevailing culture, and to rehabilitate law enforcers and follow them up continuously.” “This will help victims/survivors access their rights without stigma or blame, and lead to ending complacency with perpetrators.”